Review

“Pandamned”: Unmasking an Empire of Fear

While large parts of the Western world are currently enjoying a respite from COVID-19 in the public debate—the war in Ukraine is effectively diverting attention—attentive observers may already recognize from the current events in China that we are far from having seen the end of this issue. To borrow a sports term: we are only at the half-time break.

Thus, it is a good time to reflect, even if these reflections are largely ignored by the mainstream. While new scientific studies on the harmfulness of vaccines are constantly appearing, independent artists are finally also starting to tackle the topic. The 100% fan-funded documentary “Pandamned” by Dutch filmmaker Marijn Poels does just that, by taking on the question of what exactly happened during this pandemic.

The documentary traces questions that might leave the uninitiated viewer confused. While it starts off with a series of news items from the early days of the pandemic as voiceovers, the documentary abruptly switches to the actual topic it wants to handle. Using the example of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III, Poels, who appears in his documentaries as a ‘narrating doubter,’ switches to the central theme of his documentary: “Building power by fear. And whether the fear exists or not, doesn’t matter. As long as the majority believes, you gain endless power.”

What follows are two hours of conversations with journalists, doctors, artists, and lawyers, and many more, including prominent figures such as the political scientist Ulrike Guérot, or the microbiologist Sucharit Bhakdi, who is one of the best-known COVID skeptics in the German-speaking world.

Those who have seen previous documentaries by Poels will be familiar with the structure of the documentary, which consists of Poels trying to find people to answer his questions, only to raise other questions until he breaks through to some form of truth. But while, for example, his film “Paradogma,” which was dedicated to the subject of free speech and its perpetual narrowing in today’s society, still took the viewer by the hand and led him from the most basic questions to conversations with Jordan Peterson and Alexander Dugin, with “Pandamned” one is immediately in medias res. An elaborate introduction to the subject matter about what the virus is, whether or not it is actually as bad as we initially thought, or anything of that sort is left out.

This is not a problem for a viewer intimately familiar with the subject matter—on the contrary. However, this also reveals another problem, because it is not as if the omission of the introduction to the subject matter allows him to deal extensively with his main point. For what Poels has set out to do is nothing less than a comprehensive attempt to explain the various political, social, and cultural aspects at work here. Thus, many topics are touched upon, and even if this is mostly done in a comprehensive manner, one cannot help but feel that Poels has done the bare minimum of what was necessary to mention ‘this topic as well.’ Anyone who has had experience editing films themselves will inevitably be reminded of the process in the editing room when you have your first cut, only to be confronted with a 5-hour timeline that has to be trimmed down to a maximum of 2 hours.

This also results in possibly the main cinematic drawback of this documentary: it seems breathless in places, more like a 2-hour supercut of various podcasts loosely strung together by the shortest fragments of B-roll, where you often just see Poels staring pensively into the distance. Only at the beginning and at the end there are longer introductions and remarks, which convey the desired mood very well. In between, opportunities for reflection on the often very dense interview segments are rare, and it is not always clear why this or that person suddenly appears for an interview. The principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ would certainly have been more appropriate for the cinematic medium. However, one has to admit that on the one hand there is a lot of important information to tell, and on the other hand the processes discussed would not always be easy to visualize. Still, maybe a more active narrating role might have helped tying the sections together.

All this does not take away from the fact that “Pandamned” is nevertheless a documentary worth watching. It will provide one or another new perspective even to those who are already involved with the subject. As always with Poels, it is refreshing that a clear choice of camps between Left and Right is not palpable. Both more conservative voices and old hippies have their say. Depending on one’s own positioning, one may not always agree with the different opinions, but this diversity is precisely the kind of discourse of which one would like to see more, instead of what passes as diversity in our public discourse.

Poels needs to be commended for his positivism, which may be rooted in his activist past. Phrases such as “unless we’re waking up” are meant to stir the fighting spirit of the audience, but disillusioned viewers may be left wondering whether Poels is preaching to the choir and missing those in need of “waking up” with such rhetoric. Such language can sometimes have the opposite effect and provoke a priori skepticism with those not already sold on the premise of the topic at hand. 

In conclusion, Marijn Poels’ latest film “Pandamned” is not so much an introduction to the politics of the COVID pandemic, but rather an attempt to summarize and assess overall social developments of recent years, of which COVID was just another stage, in just under two hours of densely packed interviews. This is a colossal undertaking, and in terms of content, much of what is said is correct. However, it is more of a cinematic reference work than a dramaturgically composed documentary. Whether it can actually “wake up” new viewers is to be hoped and to be seen. But the good intention is noticeable and the conclusions are mostly consistent. Thus “Pandamned” is another building block of a counter-public that must persistently try to make itself heard. Considering that this film is also available for free, I can only recommend it to anybody interested in the matter.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.

“Pandamned” is 100% fan-funded and can be seen here via Rumble.

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